This is a trip report for a snow camping trip to Carson Pass that Matt Stanton, Tim Kutscha and Sean Lee went on due to cancellation of a trip going to Mt. Lassen that weekend. (February 13, 1999)
We left at about 5:45am on Saturday morning, and made it up to the snow park lot (the one on the right side of the road) sometime between 10 and 11:00am. It took us a while to get all our gear sorted out, and then we headed up the trail. We only took Tim's 3-person tent and left the ice axes and crampons in the car.
Tim and I had snow shoes, and Sean was using skis (with skins). We hiked until about noon, and then stopped for lunch. (I think it was probably around a mile - very slow going with the snow shoes. Sean was a bit faster on the skis.) After lunch, we looked around for a suitable slope and proceeded to start digging a snow cave. This took several hours, but in the end we had a nice cave big enough for all 3 of us lengthwise in the cave, with room for our packs and other gear inside along the front edge. We actually got hot water started heating before it got dark, although it was dark by the time we finished dinner.
In the morning, our comfortably large snow cave had become quite a bit smaller. The front part was sagging quite noticably. The rest of it was still dome-shaped, but lower than the previous day. In addition, the snow from that night's storm had filled up the entranceway to a large extent. Sean took care of shoveling a way out of our cave and we ended up sleeping in pretty late. When we finally got around to getting up and doing something, we decided that we would not be staying an extra night. Too much of our clothing was wet from building the snow cave, and we would either have to dig another one, do major surgery on the existing cave, or use the tent. With the wet clothing, the snow architecture options were more-or-less ruled out. (Besides, it would have been a repeat of the previous day.) Given the general coldness and possibility of more snow, we opted against the tent and decided leaving a day early wasn't so bad.
After getting all of our gear out of the cave (through the now extremely narrow opening), we had breakfast and moved everything up to the top of the hill. We left the stuff there and headed further in without the packs. This was quite a bit faster! We had been moving more-or-less South the entire time, so we knew that we could just head North to get back. Tim also entered a way point with his GPS at our packs (and earlier at the parking lot.) We also looked back periodically and selected some landmarks that we would head toward. Our turn around time was 2:30, so we would have time to hike out from where we left the packs before it got dark.
We saw a small peak off to the left, and decided that it would be our goal. (I believe this was "Elephant's Back") We snow-shoed/skied towards the base of the peak. Skiing had become significantly more difficult along the way, so Tim and Sean traded periodically so they would both get a chance to try out the skis. (They both had boots that fit the bindings.) At the base of the peak, we left our skis and snow shoes. Once we got to the top, we saw that it was just an easy walk up to a slightly higher peak. Given that it was only 2:15pm, we decided to try for the top. After braving the wind for a few moments of an absolutely wonderful view, we headed back down and had lunch. We managed to find our packs (and later, the car) without incident and headed back home before it was dark.
All in all, it was a fun trip. While I'm not quite ready to go again this weekend, I wouldn't mind going again in a month. I enjoyed things quite a bit more than my previous snow camping experience 2 years ago. (Perhaps remembering to close the valve on my therm-a-rest had something to do with that!)
Snow Shelter Notes
Having built snow structures 3-4 times now, I learned a few important things. Make the cave bigger than you need as it will shrink. In the future, I'll try to dig deeper into the hill before digging upwards to form the domed roof of the snow cave. This should make the roof thicker and make the front part of the cave more round. The flatter portions of the roof sagged a foot and shrunk our entrance. Making the floor higher than the top of the entrance kept us all very warm.
Carson Pass was a breeze to get up to. Just drive a few miles East past Kirkwood ski resort on hwy 88 and look for a sno-park on your right. Despite the heavy snow overnight, we didn't need chains on hwy 88. The sno-park parking area has pit toilets for changing in. You can get sno-park permits at REI, Western Mountaineering or other skiing stores for $5/day or $25/season.